Jay B. Gaskill

A bleak vision of the universe prevails among many of the world’s scientists and philosophers. Consider this vision:

The universe is a soulless, uncaring, mechanism, one dominated by complex physical laws. It is a staggeringly immense realm, whose titanic stellar objects and formations, immense masses and energies, are moving away through incomprehensibly vast distances. Such vastness and impersonality reduce all humanity to the scale of a bacteria colony in a drop of water sitting on a rock outcropping in some ghostly, horizonless desert. In this vision, we are a speck within a mindless immense space-time continuum, devoid of god, goodness, mercy, caring, innate significance or inherent meaning. Our whole history is less than a footnote.

Various forms and iterations of this world view, taken as a metaphysical claim, constitute what I call the Dead Universe Paradigm (DUP). When taken seriously as an authentic, complete reality model, the DUP is more than an unpleasantly impersonal view of the universe; it is a counter-factual construct, a toxic fiction. Yet the DUP is, in fact, the operating reality-model of the materialist, empirical mind, the dominant view of the secular intelligentsia in the western world.

A description of a profoundly moving work of music as a series of air pressure disturbances is false by omission. An account of a noble human life as a mere series of energy consumption patterns is so radically diminished in relevant information that it becomes a kind of lie. Any narrowly mechanical description of the realm of conscious, valuing beings who live in the universe represents an editorial choice, one that redacts vital, relevant information. The portrayal of a universe devoid of good, evil and other significance is a radically reduced construct of reality.

Many thoughtful scientists don’t take the DUP seriously as a comprehensive model (often by adopting a kind a “realm compromise”, i.e., that our knowledge of physical science and our traditions of human values and aspirations simply belong to separate realms that exist in a kind of metaphysical détente). Yet for many, many others the Dead Universe Paradigm has become a psychological spook house, one whose walls seem very real, indeed. To those trapped in this paradigm, our values are somehow neither “real” nor “objective” because they lack mass and energy, eluding all quantitative measurement. For the reasons that follow, we are not trapped in this construct, nor is the path out one of compromise or détente.

To begin, let me contrast three presentations of the same vision:

The February 2002 issue of Scientific American quoted Richard Dawkin’s famous observation: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” This is a concise and chilling summary of the dead universe paradigm.

In a 1997 article in the New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould, a professed humanist atheist, captured the spirit and content of contemporary Darwinism:

“The radicalism of natural selection lies in its power to dethrone some of the deepest and most traditional comforts of Western thought, particularly the notion that nature’s benevolence, order, and good design, with humans at a sensible summit of power and excellence, proves the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent creator who loves us most of all (the old-style theological version), or at least that nature has meaningful directions, and that humans fit into a sensible and predictable pattern regulating the totality (the modern and more secular version).

“To these beliefs Darwinian natural selection presents the most contrary position imaginable. Only one causal force produces evolutionary change in Darwin’s world: the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success—nothing else, and nothing higher (no force, for example, works explicitly for the good of species or the harmony of ecosystems)….

“Darwin’s system should be viewed as morally liberating, not cosmically depressing. The answers to moral questions cannot be found in nature’s factuality in any case, so why not take the ‘cold bath’ of recognizing nature as nonmoral, and not constructed to match our hopes? After all, life existed on earth for 3.5 billion years before we arrived; why should life’s causal ways match our prescriptions for human meaning or decency?”

Contrast Carl Sagan’s eloquent reaction (form his book The Pale Blue Dot) to the picture of the earth suspended in space:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light….Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Like Gould and Dennett, Carl Sagan was an atheist, but his innate love of life and humanity shine through his life’s work and in the quoted passages. That said, his core assessment about the universe is very much the same.

Yet there is human wisdom in Sagan’s quoted passages. We really do need to marshal the knowledge and will to help ourselves and we really do need “to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot.”

But this wisdom, really, is Sagan’s own in that it does not emerge from his vision of physical reality. The dead universe paradigm still peeks out at us, coded in Sagan’s words, like the Wizard of Oz from behind the facade. We find it in his twin observations, “our imagined self importance,” and “the delusion that we have some privileged place in the Universe.” These words tell us that, even in Sagan’s version of secular humanism, we may choose to assert our values against this indifferent backdrop, but we can’t find them, because they are just a construct after all. Whatever the humanist spin, a dark assessment remains: Our universe is a mindless immensity, devoid of god, goodness, mercy, caring, innate significance or inherent meaning.

The remaining implications are: That we humans (as the sole conscious, rational species of which we have knowledge) lack any intrinsic importance; and that we are insignificant save that meaning and significance to which we assign to ourselves. I believe that this vision (or lack of it) is toxic. And, when taken seriously, it exposes secular humanism – even in its highest and best form – as just another brave and noble “whistle in the dark.”

The seventeenth century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, is probably more famous for his wager about God and the afterlife than the theory of probability and his contributions to the calculus. Pascal’s wager goes something like this: In the absence of conclusive proof about hell, prudence dictates commitment to the faithful life, since the costs of following that course are minimal compared to the risks of rejecting it only to discover, too late, that the faithful were right all along.

There is a reasonable, alternative view (as I develop at much greater length elsewhere[1]):
All reality, including that of our conscious being, is fully integrated. Its shared and correlated “information content” (using the term information in a special comprehensive sense that is signaled by the term information) bridges the domains we call the material and the non-material, and connects conscious intelligence to reality aspects that stand outside space-time constraints. Thus, we can replace the DUP with a comprehensive reality integration, informed by the primacy of information as the organizing medium of material and “non-material” reality. There are important implications of these insights, among them:

· Aspects of conscious being necessarily exist outside particular physical, space-time constraint.

· Moreover, these aspects include our core moral norms.

· As material beings, we humans occupy “event space”, but as conscious beings, our decisions take place in “value space”.

This raises the prospect that no one of us is privileged to ignore the universal context of moral-significance, that, in effect, no one can act in a moral vacuum, only pretend to do so. We do not live in a universe that merely contains value, much as a bucket might “contain” a single fish. We live in a universe that integrates value, intrinsically honoring, preferring, and supporting core moral norms among its conscious, feeling, intelligent parts. Such a universe necessarily includes moral accountability. The prospect of some degree of Ultimate Accountability is not lightly to be disregarded. Pascal was a very wise man, indeed.

Because the dead universe paradigm rejects, a priori, the realty of ultimate value-significance as a property of this universe (except perhaps as mere psychology, in effect our tendency to comfort ourselves by “whistling in the dark”), it has inflicted a form of blindness on the culture. When we are captured by this mindset, our knowledge of the normative character of the ultimate and of each other is occulted.

The authority of ethics and the ethics of authority have withered away in direct correspondence with the fall of the traditional spiritually rooted belief systems that formed the foundations of our ultimate moral norms. Belief in the dead universe paradigm has undermined our confidence in morality as something rooted in the ultimate, and therefore has sharply degraded its authority as a system of non-arbitrary, principle based norms.

Some well meaning humanists, having taken seriously the claim that God is “dead,” confront the bleak vision of an indifferent universe by promoting the idea of a benign “god” as a useful construct. In effect, “a god made in man’s best image” becomes the basis of a virtual theism adopted as a convenient organizing principle, as a desirable — even necessary—fiction. I find it revealing that we seem to need to adopt this “fiction” in order for our life and presence in the universe to make sense, and for our moral rules to find firmer ground than the mere ebb and flow of history.

That well-meaning mythic deity has proved inadequate, frankly, because it has been presented as fiction. At the end of the day, all moral systems constructed solely on secular humanist foundations are little more than utilitarian inventions. [The “greatest good for the greatest number” begs the questions – “What is the good?’ And “Why care?”]

As a result, the ethical systems humanism purports to nurture are dying like flowers in a cellar. Why? There are three principal reasons:

(1) Contemporary humanism is crippled by its parochial perspective (i.e. its propensity to see humans solely as if our value is serendipitous, singular and historical, rather than as instances of a universal. A much more powerful view is to recognize our species as a wonderful instance of a universal “quickening” in the universe, the omnipresent potential for which is embedded in the warp and woof of reality. This may have been the secret faith stance of Carl Sagan, fueling his passion for the search for extraterrestrial civilizations.

(2) Humanism is withering because of its lack of deep connections with the ultimate. If we are serendipitous, singular, and historical, so are our values.

(3) Humanism fails to move us because of inability to escape from materialism. Unable to honor the large, trans-material values like honor, compassion, and integrity as ultimately real, humanism fails us at the very moment our need is the greatest. The British who heroically sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to stave off Hitler’s onslaught were not inspired by Bentham’s materialism. They fought for larger things. The flowers are dying because humanism provides too little space, too little air, and too little light.

Elsewhere, I have addressed what is wrong with the dead universe paradigm (DUP) in more detail. My argument boils down to three assertions:

(1) DUP is absurdly materialist in its metaphysics, ultimately denying the reality and significance the non-material, in spite of the fact that that non-material reality is the repository of all value, significance, and meaning.

(2) DUP fails to honor the integration principle, positing a universe in which we are an accidental (and ultimately irrelevant) intrusion, somehow not part of the whole of reality.

(3) DUP fails to explain us in other than the most narrow, materialist terms.

In each of these three respects, the dead universe paradigm is counter-factual, a mere construct, a base fiction. In a nutshell here is the contrary view:

We occupy and are the creative expression of a unitary and comprehensive reality, one that fully integrates the material and the non-material. We are, in fact, the most intense local expression of the universe in its development as conscious, living, value-assigning being. In this sense, our deepest values are founded in the universal. They are, in effect, the universe’s values.

So the lines are drawn.

I grant that most educated people in the developed world are no longer religious. This is partly due to historic failures within various religions, and partly to the “world-as-law abiding-machine” mind set that prevails among the world’s educated elites. This point of view, dominant in all secular universities, can be summarized in a four concise statements: (a) There is a purely physical, mechanical explanation for every event, creature, and circumstance in life. (b) That explanation is based on the notion that all events are ruled by natural law or the combination of law and chance. (c) That perspective excludes the supernatural and superstition. (d) All religious belief is superstition.

To the western intelligentsia, God and religion have been superseded by science. But it has taken us the better part of a century to realize that science, itself, is not well equipped to deal with the deep questions of the human experience, including the question of how to use science ethically. These questions include: Who are we, really? Why should we care about anything except our own immediate self satisfaction? Is there any larger purpose to our lives? Over the centuries, religious traditions have supplied answers to these questions, but in the last hundred years the credibility of underlying religious belief systems has been gravely crippled. The scientific/rationalist revolution triggered a decline in religious belief among the educated elites who inhabit the academies and the dominant media. We now face a secular doctrine that is the full equivalent of a modern “scientistic” religion. This is a hollow religion, at best, because of its materialist, relativist stance. Here is its catechism:

  1. Natural law, coupled with random chance, is the sole, complete explanation for the creation of the universe and all the worlds.
  2. Natural selection, based only on “accidental” innovation leading to adaptive “fitness” is the sole, complete explanation for all biological creation, including that of our own species.
  3. Physical, verifiable scientific experiments are the sole, complete source of knowledge about natural law.
  4. Reason (logic, mathematics), rigorously applied to the results of physical experiments, is the sole, complete guide to truth.
  5. All our other human beliefs and assertions are less than “real” knowledge.  They are the inadequate attempts of a superstitious mind to portray physical reality, or they are mere subjective personal inclination, on a par with color preference, beyond all hope of objective truth-verification. 

These five belief elements have become a case against the existence of God or any other meaningful normative center to the universe, against the existence of objective discoverable moral principles, and against the existence of any distinctly spiritual realm of existence, except as a sort of parasite (epiphenomenon) of the mechanical operation of the brain. I will sometimes refer to this doctrine as TOME (Total Materialistic Empiricism or, Total Mechanical Explanation of Everything).

I believe these developments in thought first began to take hold as a result of the contributions of David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and their followers, whose systems of thought placed “value” wholly outside the realm of empirical verification. But the unique power of TOME came from the impact of Charles Darwin’s theories and the success of the scientific industrial revolution. Hume and Kant were philosophers, not scientists, and their ideas, at the most, provided the staging ground for the later developments. But it was probably Hume’s skeptical “shot across the bow” (more than any other single line of thought) that began the change process that would alter all subsequent intellectual history. Almost single handedly, Hume’s writings convinced subsequent generations of intellectuals that morality and theology could never be proved.[2] With Darwin’s natural explanation of human origins, this mind set invaded the popular culture.

TOME’s five propositions, (that natural law and natural selection trump religion, that experiment and logic trump moral truth, and that all else consists of unverifiable subjectivism), released an intellectual acid that has eaten deeply into all ethical wisdom, all spiritual insight, and the most noble human aspirations, leaving them demoted to the status of mere “whim.” This cleared the field for world weary cynicism and empty hedonism. The doctrines of positivism (i.e., that we may know nothing that can’t be experimentally proved) and cultural or moral relativism (i.e., that we may hold nothing to be right or wrong, just different than our own cultural/moral perspective) were thus given immense credibility. As a result, nihilism acquired “legs.”

A psycho-social moral vacuum inevitably followed the adoption of TOME by the intelligentsia, but the sea change in the larger culture was not immediately apparent. In part, this was because most of the so called “common” people, increasingly dismissed by the intelligentsia as “primitive,” continued to adhere to the older religious traditions. And others, influenced by the religious traditions of their parents and grandparents, continued to behave “as if.” But this sense of complacency was a temporary condition, like the shipmates who look around after the boat has taken a fatal shot below-decks, then continue as if it is business as usual.

I journaled about this in my early twenties…

It is as if the present moral order lingers like the form of the bucket which has vanished, leaving the water it once contained momentarily bucket shaped, but quivering in transition.

The innate human need for an authoritative grounding of our ethical belief systems cannot be long denied. The TOME mind set has created anxiety and a sense of drift. History teaches us that all human societies abhor a moral vacuum. Drift is eventually replaced by authority, and chaos by tyranny. As a result many intellectuals have sought a substitute for religion. If we no longer have a religious ground for the norms and principles on which civilization is based, then (the argument goes) why not find scientific ground? In essence, finding ourselves in a mechanical universe, one in which religious authority is dying, we have been trying to construct for ourselves a “mechanical” god.

The result was a century of mass murder. In the early years of the 20th Century, the collapse in religious belief systems – which to that time had been the primary support for world ethical belief systems – opened the way to the adoption of two major pseudo-scientific ideologies. Beginning with the 1917 Soviet revolution in Russia, and the 1933 takeover of German democracy by the Nazis, two so called “scientific” authoritarian belief systems emerged on the world stage, endowed with the trappings of legitimate authority. One was based on the “science” of a super race, and the other on the “science” of brutal socio-economic engineering. The regimes adopted the trappings of neo-religions (see Eric Hoffer’s classic, The True Believer),[3] and became infected with an inhumane intolerance whose virulence was more deadly than that exhibited by authoritarian religious institutions at their worst. Because these new regimes were intended to replace religions, the ruthless suppression of religion was inevitable.

The lasting legacy of the 20th century was of the achievement of totalitarian power by these two pseudo-scientific ideologies, and the landscape of the 20th century is littered with their casualties. The murderously destructive consequences were far worse in absolute numbers of sufferers than any prior recorded time.[4] Religious persecution was outdone in the 20th Century by “science” inspired tyrannies.

Let’s return, for a moment, to Carl Sagan’s vision and look at it through the eyes of a child. Our first reaction to the magnificent night sky, shot through with stars, uncolored by adult cynicism, is of pleasant awe and wonder. The knowledge that these lights are other suns and star systems at such incredible distances that we are looking into the remote past only reinforces our sense of benign wonder. If we really believed that the entire universe was utterly indifferent to us, to life, to conscious being and our deepest values, our reaction might well be despair and fear. I propose that our sense of benign wonder at nature, the stars, and the immensity our surroundings comes from an innate knowledge of the deep unity of things.

Let me also suggest that the benign wonder we feel at the sight of the pale blue dot of earth comes from that same deep intimation of unity, the innate grasp that all thinking, feeling beings who dwell on that fragile world share a commonalty of place, circumstance and nature. This insight by which we sense the underlying unity of reality is the beginning of wisdom. It is one application of the integration principle, a subject to which I return in some depth elsewhere.

The grim catalogue of 20th century social damage I have attributed to TOME, flows from the fact that empirical materialism itself is flawed as a comprehensive doctrine, and because it is completely without ethical content. To advance beyond TOME we need to escape the dead universe paradigm itself.

As I have intimated, the key to our escape is at hand. It is contained in a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the nature of information and of the information in nature. The implications of a single powerful principle, integration, tell us how to use that key. The discovery of our ultimate self-nature in the universal context will take us the rest of the way home. Are we really an insignificant speck within a mindless immensity, a universe devoid of god, goodness, mercy, caring, innate significance or inherent meaning? By what measure can we measure insignificance?

Consider that the entire corpus of the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven can be reduced to a data chip smaller than the head of a pin. That a block of uncut granite weighs more. That three kilograms of uranium 235 pack more raw energy. Can any conscious, feeling intelligent being value undifferentiated mass or raw energy over the wonders of creative inspiration? Suppose for a moment that we are the only speck in the entire universe that contains thinking, feeling, conscious, intelligent beings. Clearly we are “outnumbered and outgunned.” But this is not a weight or strength contest. Significance has no mass. We conscious beings may operate in event space but we also exist in value space. What is missing from the dead universe paradigm? We are missing, and all conscious, thinking, feeling beings discovered and undiscovered, born and unborn are missing, and all the wonders we and others have wrought and yet may be inspired to create are missing.

The integration principle places us back in the universe. It leads us to develop the implications of the missing primal fact, to wit:

The universe came awake in us, and in all other conscious, intelligent, feeling beings, and thereby discovered its value.


Copyright © 2003 by Jay B. Gaskill

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[1] These themes are addressed in two books-in-progress, the first of which, “The Wise Child”, touches on the problem of the transmission of moral information between generations when tradition itself is subject to the withering forces of unrestrained skepticism.

[2] Even as I might disagree, I can’t help but admire Hume’s clarity of expression, e.g. “…in tracing an eternal succession of objects, it seems absurd to inquire for a first cause or first author.” (David Hume, Concerning Natural Religion.)

[3] I had the privilege if seeing this passionate, coherent, trenchant self educated longshoreman twice in the sixties, a man who maintained from life experience that the common people were “lumpy with talent” and that the idle intellectuals were a dangerous combination of skill and lack of judgment.

[4] In gulags, ditches, gas ovens, labor camps, prisons, torture chambers, and forcible relocations, the last century’s totalitarian regimes between them killed more of their own people than the entire casualty list of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the jihads, and all of the religious wars and oppressions before them combined.

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